India's number one goalkeeper Subrata Pal is currently in Canada on trials with USSF Division 2 Professional League side Vancouver Whitecaps FC, who will get entry into Major League Soccer next year.
If successful Subrata could follow in the footsteps of team mate Sunil Chhetri, who in March signed for US Major League Soccer club Kansas City Wizards.
It is a tough challenge for the Pune FC keeper, but one that he will cherish and hopefully succeed in. Subrata has what it takes to play abroad.
And I will be happy to see him succeed nearly eight years after watching him the first time as a teenager.
The first time
The first I heard about him was in September 2001 when his name was mentioned to me by the then Indian Youth coach Islam Akhmedov as one of the most talented goalkeeper that he was training in the Under-16 and Under-19 national teams.
Coach Akhmedov, who hails from Uzbekistan, has an eye to spot talent. I remember he toured the North-East for three months in 2001 to scout for talent to play for the Indian Under-16 and U-19 teams.
And he had a personal request for me to try and organise a training camp for the juniors in Germany ahead of the Asian Junior finals. And the way I am, I tried to help and the camp happened.
The first meeting
I along with my friend Chris Punnakkattu Daniel organised the training camp for the India Under-17 national team at the Sports School in Hennef, south of Cologne in August 2002.
A top class facility which is used by Bundesliga clubs and Argentina stayed there during the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Subrata was one of the 20 boys in the squad which came to Germany. A very nice boy and as we both are Bengalis he did ask for my advice and help. Actually as the junior team didn't have a goalkeeping coach then, Chris and I had the task to shooting balls at the keepers.
Subrata was one of the three goalkeepers in the squad. Subhashish Roy Chowdhury and Shaik Nasibul Haque where the two others. And like today in the senior national team Subrata was the No. 1 and Subhashish the No. 2.
The Cristiano incidence
In summer 2004 Subrata would leave the Tata Football Academy after his stint there as a cadet. He had many offers, but then decided to sign for Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan AC. He was set to be the number three or four goalkeeper in the pecking order behind international Prasanta Dora, Bibhas Ghosh and Imran Khan. But Subrata hadn't signed for the green-and-maroon to end on the terraces. By the time the Federation Cup 2004 was held in November/December he was the clubs number one goalkeeper.
But one incidence nearly ended his career. It is December 5, 2004 - the final of the 26th Federation Cup is being played in Bangalore with record champions Mohun Bagan taking on Dempo SC. It is the 78th minute Dempo are leading one-nil. Brazilian striker Cristiano S. de Lima Junior has a chance to place the ball past Subrata, he does it in style, but as the ball enters the goal for Dempo's second goal there seems to be contact between Subrata and Cristiano who goes down thereafter. His team mate Ranty Martins Soleye realises something is wrong. Medics are on the spot, but it takes ages to get an ambulance and transfer the player to a hospital. He is proclaimed brought dead.
And a witch hunt starts after the game. It goes to the extend that Subrata is blamed to have killed Cristiano. He travels back to Kolkata to his Sodepur home. Never ever playing football is on his mind as he was the culprit in the blame game though Subrata later on said never to have touched Cristiano.
Subrata's family also wants him to stop playing football and find something else. The public and media pressure was taking its toll. But Subrata came back stronger and much more mature after the incidence. Something like this does change your life.
Team India regular
Subrata got his first call-up for the Senior national team in mid 2006 after Bob Houghton joined. Initially Sandip Nandy was India's No. 1, but Bob realised that the younger keepers in Subrata Pal and Subhashish Roy Chowdhury had more long term potential, so he slowly started a transition under which Subrata was set to be India's future No. 1.
Subrata became one of the key players in India's winning campaigns in the 2007 Nehru Cup, the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and the 2009 Nehru Cup. And especially the 2009 Nehru Cup will be remembered as Subrata won India the title in a penalty shootout against Syria.
And as we look forward to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, Subrata will have to play a pivotal role in goal against superior sides like South Korea, Australia and Bahrain. A lots of shots will be flying his way during the tournament.
I can only wish Subrata all the best in the trials! And I hope he makes it...